Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met yesterday at a Geneva summit that could not have been more different to the meeting there between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1985. The Cold war-era iteration allowed three days for talk and negotiation; yesterday it all happened in a single afternoon. President Putin arrived straight from the airport; there was no official reception, no shared meal and no overnight stay.
The tight schedule reflected the summit’s timid expectations. In separate press conferences following less than four hours of talks, the leaders inevitably spoke of a frank and constructive atmosphere, and agreed to step up lower-level consultations. But on tough topics ranging from cyber warfare to international conflicts, the US and Russia remain implacably divided. The best to hope for in the aftermath is a more stable and predictable relationship; this is mainly in the interest of the US, which sees Russia as an unpleasant distraction from its larger economic, social and military power struggle with China.
And what was gained by Switzerland and Geneva? Neutral Switzerland might have been the perfect host: it laid on an impeccable display of organisation at 32C under blue skies, with Russian and American flags waving side by side on the Pont du Mont Blanc. But beyond the symbolism – and the boon to the local economy from such summitry – the value of hosting such bilateral talks remains in question.
Rather than serving as a mediator, Swiss diplomats had no say on the agenda or structure of the talks; Guy Parmelin, president of the Swiss Confederation, demonstrated as much when he offered his “best wishes and goodbye” in front of the modest two-storey Villa La Grange at the lakeside – just before Biden and Putin left to start their actual talks in private. And the public? Those in Geneva’s bars will no doubt have spent some time yesterday evening celebrating their vaunted place in world politics, just before turning their attention to the football as Switzerland took on Italy at Euro 2020.
Florian Egli is a senior associate at the Swiss foreign policy think-tank Foraus and a regular contributor to Monocle 24. Hear more on the Geneva summit on a special episode of The Monocle Daily.
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